The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Nature Notes for October.
by M. L. A.
The phenomena of the seasons have no exact monthly line of demarcation. The early days of September show the same sights of nature as the latter ones of August. Then do grass-hoppers chirp loud, and solitary bees stand buzzing in wood-ways, and winged ants swarm upwards on stem of polytrichum moss in the wood, or crawl by thousands in dusty wood-side road, intent on their so-called marriage flight. Then do Pied Wagtails congregate by the dozen, running nimbly round the cattle of the pastures, where flies abound; and flocks of Missel thrushes most warily scour the margins of the fell land and heather. Then do Meadow-pipits in parties betake themselves to the flowery billows of that heather, where the Curlew is no more found, and where insect life below the waves is plenteous; and there rise, from picking the tiny succulent seed, with sweet cries of si-sip-sipit. Then does the ivy, that of all the trees and herbs of the north loves to do the contrary thing, begin to put forth those blossoms that will open by-and-by, making of their autumn a spring of its own. Then does the oak tree suckle upon its leaves thousands of minute white grubs, either within the minute spangle galls that bespatter them, or the big ruddy-growing cherry galls. Then do Rooks grow jocund, and call and clamour, with high hilarious double notes, gambolling in the air, flinging them-selves down precipitate from a height to catch up with a side-way turn that is almost a somersault.
All birds show joyousness in bright September days, when the moult is over (indeed some show it before this happens, and funny it is to see a Pied Wagtail chirrup and wag his hinder parts where a tail should be!) and the seed-harvest is plenteous, and each bird is for himself alone in the getting. Besides, for many species there is the journey southward in question, and the instinct of movement awakens. So while summer, that fled precipitate before August rain and chill, comes back superb in days of sunshine and nights of moon-light, all birds go about their business with sounds of pleasure. The Marsh Tit eats the seod of the spear-thistle, whose matted hoary polls stand waiting for a wind, with cheery zip-zip calls. The Black-cap Warbler and the Robin keep picking the elderberries one by one as they ripen; and the Starling drops from his early song-perch to breakfast upon them. The Throstle, silent by exception, springs about the yew-tree to catch its berries. The Titmice sport about beeches, where nuts ripen for the Great-tit and for the Coal-tit (whose spring cries sound from the shade) and where leaf-supply of aphides still holds out for Blue-tit and for Long-tail. The Gold-crest sings as it flutters after gnats; the Chaffinch essays to sing, but cannot get beyond four notes or so; Robins wax exuberantly eloquent, and the Dipper by the beck begins his song again.
And while all this goes on, the excitement and expectancy of the Swallows grow. When shall they start? How many more of lagging nesters shall they wait for? During the sunny days they gather and increase; the air is full of their sweeping forms, of their cries and calls and songs--for Swallows have a performance that must be classed as song. They alight in concourse first on a wych-elm--no reeds or telegraph wires being handy,--whose top-most twigs have been worn bare of leaf by heavy-footed Rooks. They swarm, Swallows settling on bare bough, and Martins poising on leafy end, till they find a bare old larch that suits them better, where they may hold noisy parliament. The climax comes one glorious morn (the 14th) when valley mist below makes upland sunshine (that lights the dew to brilliance) doubly glorious. The old larch tree is all vocal and animate; hovering wings fold themselves into still and twittering forms; rows of white breasts shine along the boughs, tier above tier, bathed in sun rays from the east. Then suddenly, they fling shemselves on air, swarming, calling, sweeping round. It is a wonderful sight! Next morning, of that great concourse, not a Swallow is visible; there is a lonely feel in the air. One band at least has started for the great trip south, though many a Swallow has yet to go, and it is long before we shall look for the last one.
Then comes October, that has beneath its risks of weather, perhaps, greater possibilities of beauty than any other month in the year. Superb in sunshine, with its ruddy fruited hedgerows, its trees of red and yellow, pink and bronze (each an individualized mass of colour) its mountains of gold-brown bracken slopes below, and blue-lined sweeps above, softened, etherealized in mist; how superb! But in cold and wet, with damp smell of falling leaves, how cheerless and chill the month may be!
But it is October, when summer finally drops her mantle, and the trees wait in naked preparedness (all their forces ingathered and wrapped tightly up for winter) the resurrection of a new spring, that our true English birds may be most easily seen and learnt. For how can birds be correetly called English that will not bear the worst of England's weather, but like rich and idle people, seek a foreign land for warmth? And when the delicate hordes are gone--all the host of Swallows, and Redstarts, and Fly-catchers, and confusing, closely-allied Warblers--the October landscape is left free to our few hardy, home-staying species. Some Swallows do, however, linger on, according to their nesting fortunes, through the month. I saw this year, on the 7th, a brood of Martins but just on the wing, and another still in the nest--a date of most risky lateness, though the continuous fine weather was favourable to the flight of young birds. It reminded me of a sight I once saw, of a Martin feeding its young from the 23rd to the 28th of September, in the face of terrible north-west gales and squalls. The nest too, was perched on a huge sea-cliff, from whose iron-stone sides, unsettled by the rain and wind, the stones came down with a continuous rattle, missing, however, the little mud cradle that was within a slight cavity. I wondered if that brave, solitary parent succeeded in bringing out the twittering fledglings that held it bound to the wind-blown spot.
But when such summer friends are all flown, how conspicuous become suddenly our winter birds! The Robin, all at once, is ubiquitous. He is everywhere, hopping by the rich road borders, where brambles trail in blackening fruit and reddening leaf (bright as his own breast) and the little strawberry leaves begin to make a mosaic of colour; following his mate coquettishly, perching, while he sings his delicious ditty, on the most conspicuous post he can find, and singing too, on the warm days that excite eloquence, all the day long. Then he grows bold with the first touch of cold, enters the open windows, perambulates the quiet rooms and makes his exit at his own sweet, unfluttered will. There is no art in knowing the Robin, or the Wren, or even the little modest red-legged accentor of our gardens; none in descrying the cheery Wagtails that consort on church roof; not much in making out the bands of Missel-thrushes and of Meadow Pipits that still patrol, before the on-coming of the Fieldfares, the rough fell lands. But there are half-a-dozen or more species, sufficiently common, that are not so well-known, and which, yet, with a little care, can be easily noted. I would advise the intending ornithologist to wait at all times on his ear. That organ is of even more service to him than the eye. It gives the signal, in the faint but perfectly decicisive voice of species, of the presence, close by, of the yet unseen bird. After the signal is caught, some small caution and a little wait will show the feathered morsel to the eye. In quiet woods, a soft zee sound, rising and falling, betrays the where-abouts of the Goldcrests. They flit in a small family party with butterfly-spotted wing, and seldom-seen yellow head, about the evergreen firs; atoms of life, light and drab, living on still more infinitesimal life, The Coal-tits are not far off, keeping their band together with pretty sweet calls,--though they may be caught occasionally at a frivolous by-play, as when the other day I heard a Coal-tit beguiled by cocky Chaffinch into a wordy war, the one bird's spink incessantly answered by the other's teep,--a game which absorbed the two for some time, Or else a rolling R-sound, minute as fairy's drum taps, tells the secret of the Long-tail's ambuscade, and with a litle cautious spying the birds will soon be seen more stationary than usual in the bushes at this season, perching with pendant tail, and enjoying a colloquy of tr-r-r-r-r's and tick-ticks. Or a tap-tap like the Woodpecker’s call may be heard. Look up in the beech tree, and there is the Great-tit busy, opening with powerlul beak the hard burr of the beech-nut. The Squirrel comes, too, after this year’s bounteous harvest of mast, and so does the Jay. The Jay is cautious. We may hear his unmelodious voice above pretty often, but the rare vision we have of him shows a black-tailed, white-backed bird in the act of disappearance. He does jot stay to be watched. The Marsh-tit also is not generally easy to observe. Perhaps a faint zip-zip gives the cue; and there he is! springing after insects about the gorgeous rose-bush that has not yet lost the fragile yellow leaves about its scarlet choops, beautiful as the bush, though not so bright, with his rich velvet cap above his pale throat and cheeks.
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